Last season, the Browns had a difficult time stopping the run, especially up the middle. Gone now are starting defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson, plus middle linebacker B.J. Goodson.
While Goodson’s replacement seems to be Anthony Walker or the rookie JOK while the interior of the defensive line has been wide open for new replacements. And that battle is heating up.
It was assumed that Andrew Billings and Jordan Elliott would get the nod as the starters. But other names have emerged and thrown their hat into the ring.
Billings is a very stout man who is difficult to move but has had a rough time in live games. He hasn’t really played in over a year since he was a 2020 opt out. Elliott has had flashes at times this preseason after his rookie season showed promise. Two rookies this year, fifth-rounder Tommy Togiai and undrafted free agent Marvin Wilson, have played and looked like rookies.
But the three players along the defensive line who have gotten the most attention has been veteran DT Sheldon Day, DE Joe Jackson and the problem-child DT Malik McDowell.
This group is so talented. The early odds of the final four were Elliott, Billings, veteran Malik Jackson and rookie Tommy Togiai. But the truth is, all of the above are struggling. And many of these names won’t make the final roster.
Day came to the Browns last year after the Indianapolis Colts waived him and he was subsequently signed to the practice squad. He signed a one-year deal worth $900,000 the same day Cleveland inked DE Jadeveon Clowney.
He has had a very good camp and is usually lined up with the defensive line starters. On Friday, the Browns released an unofficial depth chart, their first of the year. The starters were listed as Billings and Jackson with Day behind Billings and Elliott as backup to Jackson.
The coaches have come to trust Day on the inside. DL coach Chris Kiffin coached him while on the staff of the San Francisco 49ers. Day started the final two games of the season plus three playoff games and Super Bowl LIV. DC Joe Woods was also on that staff at the time.
Kiffin said this in the Akron Beacon Journal regarding Day:
“He’s definitely a guy I can rely on and trust to do the job well. That’s why we brought him here in the first place, and he’s done the rest by taking his opportunity and running with it and putting together a good camp.”
While other names have been bounced around as probable final roster members, Day’s name usually is absent from those lists. The truth is that he is not only a good bet to make the team, but in all likelihood will cement one of the two starting defensive tackle spots. Not only is his history with the coaching staff solid, but his camp and preseason game performances are well-noted.
Day (6’-1”, 285 pounds) noted about his chances of making the 2021 Browns:
“I feel like I’ve been doing that my whole career, so it’s just like another day in the life of Sheldon. I’m just trying to do what I can to make this team better, so I don’t really think about being under the radar, who they drafted, who got paid what. You can’t worry about somebody else. You’ve got to worry about what you can do.”
Jackson is a nine-year veteran, Pro Bowler and Super Bowl Champion. Billings was a key free agent signing last year. Togiai was drafted this year as a need position. Elliott is a third-round pick and rarely do players taken that high become cut. Wilson was signed after numerous clubs wildly bid for his services and Cleveland subsequently signed him for $192,000 with a fully guaranteed contract. Teams don’t usually waive players they have invested so much money into.
McDowell (6’-6”, 295 pounds) is loaded with talent - that is not disputed. What is the ire of fans, however, is how McDowell came as a second-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks and then spent 11 months in prison without playing a single down in any pro football game. But he is quietly having an exceptional camp.
“He has been great,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said, via Andrew Gribble of the team website. “He has been great in the meeting rooms, around the building and out on the grass. He is in a really good place, works very hard and is very serious about his craft. I see him making strides every day working with Coach Kiff (defensive line coach Chris Kiffin) and working with (assistant defensive line) Coach (Jeremy) Garrett.”
His NFL debut after four years of being drafted was against the New York Football Giants in Cleveland’s second preseason game. A long career begins with making the most of his opportunities while on the field. Against the Giants, he did just that with five total tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss and two QB hits. One of his tackles was that smash on the one-yard line for the two-point conversion. He had the highest numbers of any defensive linemen.
Stefanski then added the following regarding McDowell’s journey in Browns camp:
“He had worked really hard when we got him in the building in the spring. Obviously, had a couple of injuries that set him back but stayed into it with the walkthroughs and stayed into it in the meeting rooms. He is a guy who is really, really battling. He is working very, very hard as we get through this training camp. To see him out there making plays, his teammates were excited for him. He continues to grind. He continues to work at this thing.”
Yes, this is preseason and yes, these stats were against second team guys. But production is noted each time. McDowell is just 25-years old and was a holy terror coming out of college. If the Browns can harness that former self and get him settled emotionally, he could certainly land a roster spot and become a valued contributor. He is a mountain of a man and he absolutely wrecks havoc in the passing game. Seattle picked him in the second-round for a reason.
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Both Day and McDowell have a legitimate shot at making the final roster.
Defensive line news
Despite the starters not playing much (if at all) this preseason, Joe Jackson has used this to his advantage.
Jackson (6’-4”, 275 pounds) has impressed in camp and in two preseason games so far. He had two tackles against Jacksonville and played on 51% of defensive snaps. Against the Giants his snap count increased as did his production with four total tackles and was a constant presence in the backfield.
He came to the Browns as a former fifth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in the 2019 NFL draft after a stellar college career with Miami in which he had 23 sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss in three seasons. Four defensive ends were brought into camp by the Cowboys and Jackson was a final day roster cut. Two days later, he was claimed off waivers by Cleveland.
For 11 games last year he was listed as inactive and was also placed on the reserve/COVID list at some point. He recorded just five tackles during spot duty but recovered a key fumble against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2 after a Myles Garrett strip sack. Jackson remained a member of the Browns all during the off-season. This allowed him to participate in the off-season conditioning program, have access to the weight room plus the nutritionist.
Jackson did see significant playing time when DE Olivier Vernon was sidelined with an abdominal injury plus Adrian Clayborn had some hip issues.
He grew up the youngest of seven children raised by his grandmother in poor financial conditions. Having nothing all his life has given him motivation to succeed. Jackson explained to the Akron Beacon Journal:
“When I play football, I drive myself. When we’re talking about helping people outside of football. it’s something I want to do because I can empathize with them. … I’ve been in their shoes. I do that out of compassion because I want to. Other people’s tragic stories, I can’t use that to motivate myself. Just like a lot of dudes in this league, most of us come from unfortunate backgrounds. I’m pretty much handling that situation. I’m making sure I’m kept up with everything. I’m always trying to learn something.”
Kiffin has stated that the Browns are looking for quality depth along the defensive line. At DE, Garrett and Clowney are locks to be the starters. But behind them is where Jackson has his focus.
The challengers so far are Porter Gustin, who the coaches love and is a production guy, plus Curtis Weaver, Romeo McKnight and Takk McKinley.
Weaver has plenty of upside and the coaching staff is very high on. McKnight is an undrafted free agent rookie out of Charlotte where he bounced around three colleges and had minimal stats.
McKinley had left training camp for quite some time for personal reasons. He was originally a first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons after a phenomenal college stint at UCLA in which he busted out his junior year with 10 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and 61 tackles.
He is viewed as an important member of the D-line rotation. The defense needs him to return healthy and become ultra-focused on the game at hand. Injuries are a constant on the defensive front, so quality depth is crucial. Garrett had residual effects from COVID last year and Clowney has been plagued with injuries his entire career.
McKinley has the support of the coaches as well as the front office so that’s a plus. But you can’t be evaluated if you aren’t at practice and in games. And the season begins with – or without – McKinley suiting up. Now that he has magically re-appeared, how does his absence affect his prognosis of being a final roster member? Are his abilities more advanced that others who have sweated every day and worked hard at becoming a Cleveland Brown? Is the PUP list a possibility? Has he shown enough before him leaving and his now limited practice days to warrant a spot on this defense? Will one preseason game be enough to evaluate his current talents?
His absence became Jackson’s opportunity to show he belongs on the depth chart come Week 1.
Keep in mind, the Browns traditionally only keep four defensive tackles and four defensive ends on their final roster. There are going to be some tough decisions ahead for this coaching staff in regards to the defensive line room. Other teams are waiting to grab the scraps from Cleveland’s table which in past years has never happened.
If there are extra bodies at a certain position, it would most likely become another cornerback and/or safety. So don’t for a second think that the coaches will keep another DT or DE just because they have so many good ones in camp.
They can’t - and they won’t.